As It Happens·Q&A

Lebanese people have 'complete lack of trust' in Beirut blast investigation, says Human Rights Watch

The fallout from this week's devastating explosion in Beirut is by now all too clear — staggering numbers of dead and wounded, hospitals either destroyed or overwhelmed, and an economic crisis made crushingly worse. 

The Lebanese public won't trust 'anything short' of an international, third-party probe, says Aya Majzoub

Members of the army hold back demonstrators, expressing anger with the government negligence that allegedly contributed to Tuesday's explosion in Beirut. (Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images)

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The fallout from this week's devastating explosion in Beirut is by now all too clear — staggering numbers of dead and wounded, hospitals either destroyed or overwhelmed, and an economic crisis made crushingly worse

What remains unclear, however, is how 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate was left sitting in the capital's bustling port for years, and what ultimately caused it to explode. 

At least 135 people were killed and more than 5,000 injured on Tuesday when the explosion rang out in Lebanon's capital. The explosive materials had been stored in a warehouse at the port since they were confiscated from a cargo ship in 2013, despite multiple warnings from port officials about the risks. 

In an interview with As It Happens on Wednesday, Economy Minster Raoul Nehme vowed that a government investigation into the blast would be thorough and wide-ranging. Military judge Fadi Akki, who is leading the probe, said Thursday that 16 port employees have been detained and 18 people have been questioned so far.

But Aya Majzoub, a Beirut resident who works with Human Rights Watch, says Lebanon's government can't be trusted to investigate the blast. She spoke to As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner on Thursday as people in Beirut protested amid the explosion's wreckage. Here is part of their conversation.

How would you describe the mood in the streets of Beirut today?

People are angry. I have never seen people so enraged like they are today.

People are both baffled by how more than 2,700 tonnes of explosive material was left in the port for several years, but also just outraged at the sheer incompetence and negligence of the Lebanese ruling elite.

What kind of reaction have you seen to evidence that high-level officials in Lebanon knew for years about the presence of this dangerous material and did nothing?

Really, it's very hard to comprehend how so many people knew about the existence of these explosive materials and did nothing.

As more and more documents emerge, and as journalists and researchers dig deeper, really the number of people who are implicated in this cover-up is growing by the second.

Two men gaze at the devastated Beirut port from a damaged building in the nearby neighbourhood of Mar Mikaehl. (Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images)

People have been placed under arrest. Port officials. What kind of reaction is there to that?

People are saying that it's not nearly enough. You know, the problem didn't start with the port officials. Yes, they should be held responsible. But the investigation should be much broader.

People should be looking at, you know, what facilitated this? You know, the port officials were not the only people who knew of the existence of the ammonium nitrate in Beirut. Who else was involved?

People are so disillusioned that any results from an investigation carried out by the Lebanese authorities will not be taken seriously and will not be credible in the eyes of the Lebanese public.- Aya Majzoub

And really part of the problem is the complete lack of trust between the Lebanese public and the Lebanese state. The Lebanese public is so rightfully mistrustful of this Lebanese government that has for many years been robbing the country blind. And this was just the latest in a string of failures.

People are so disillusioned that any results from an investigation carried out by the Lebanese authorities will not be taken seriously and will not be credible in the eyes of the Lebanese public.

Were the port officials not the ones who were sending warnings to the politicians through the judiciary?

They were. From the evidence that we have so far, there are several letters that port officials sent to the judiciary asking them to act. But, you know, the judiciary not responding is no reason to ignore or fail to act on something as sensitive and as explosive as this.

Are you worried that the various officials, port officials, the judges themselves, will be blamed for this, and elected politicians will escape accountability?

Absolutely. I mean, it's that we are used to in Lebanon — the political elite scapegoating lower ranking people in order to get away with abuse, crimes or negligence.

So definitely the worry is there, which is why we have been calling for an independent investigation with international experts. Anything short of this will fail to get the trust and credibility the investigation needs.

This is a new government in Lebanon. Does that give you some hope that there will be a determined effort to get to the bottom of this?

Unfortunately not. Even if ... the faces are new, the people who appointed them and the people who they have their loyalties tied to, are the same politicians and the same party leaders and the same warlords that have ruled the country for decades.

In our view, this government is a continuation of previous Lebanese governments and it's not independent nor technocratic.

We still don't know what ... caused the explosion. How hopeful are you that the kind of investigation that you've called for would answer that question?

We hope that an independent investigation would be able to answer this question. But the concern, the immediate concern now, is tampering with evidence.

Already there have been efforts to clean up the port. Already there have been efforts to try to remove the rubble. So with that, our concern is that the evidence that could lead to an explanation of what really happened could also be buried.

Residents hold brooms as they protest in Beirut. (Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images)

And in the meantime, as Lebanon tries to cope, all kinds of aid money is pouring into the country — money coming from all around the world, including Canada. Given the concerns that you've outlined about government incompetence and possible corruption, how do you think this aid needs to be administered?

We have called, as Human Rights Watch, for the aid to be directly given to the people in need or to organizations working on the ground, and not channeled through the governments.

And there seems to be an international recognition of the need for a process like this, an independent process that's separate from the government, given the Lebanese government's history of squandering billions of dollars in aid that never trickled down to the public.

How hopeful are you about the future for Beirut and for Lebanon?

It's really hard at a time like this to think of anything hopeful or think of anything optimistic in the midst of such widespread destruction. But what has inspired me in the last few days has been watching the Lebanese people unite together and help each other to get out of this crisis and to start to rebuild.

There has been a complete absence of the Lebanese state on the streets and in disaster response. That has been left up to community organizers and local and private initiatives.

I can't put into words how touching and how inspiring it has been to walk around the streets of Beirut and see young people co-ordinating teams to various neighbourhoods and clean-up efforts and distributing food and water to people in need.

As long as Lebanese people show this kind of solidarity to one another, I think that it might take a long time to recover, but hopefully something good can come out of this disaster and people can start building the state that they want and the state that they deserve.

You lived through the blast. You were there for the immediate aftermath. What kind of an impact does it have on you personally?

It's been a really difficult few days. I mean, I have never, ever in my life experienced what I experienced a couple of days ago. Just the shock of the blast. The widespread destruction. The confusion on everyone's faces. The injuries. The blood. I mean, it's devastating.

For the moment, everybody's trying to busy themselves with, you know, disaster relief and trying to assess the damage and help those less fortunate. But, you know, I think reality will start to set in pretty soon, and that's terrifying.

Written by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes and Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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